America’s modern craft brewing movement began in California in 1965. A young man named Fritz Maytag was enjoying a pint of Anchor Steam at a local restaurant when the bartender told him it was likely to be his last; the historic Anchor brewery was on the verge of bankruptcy. Maytag decided to buy a controlling interest in the Anchor Brewery and brought a craftsman’s touch to the brand, introducing new beers, and reviving lost styles.
Maytag’s plan worked and he had the craft beer market to himself until 1976, when Anchor fan Jack McAuliffe founded the New Albion Brewery Co. in Sonoma. With a focus on British-style ales, this new producer became America’s first modern microbrewery. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in Chico, followed in 1980, creating a new beer style called American pale ale. By 1990, some 67 breweries operated across the state.
Today, California is home to more than 850 breweries and the state’s craft beer boom shows no sign of slowing down. From Mendocino County to San Diego, California’s trendsetting, thirst-quenching craft breweries beckon. Here’s an introduction to some of the most notable craft breweries in the state, listed north to south.
What began as a cobbled-together home brewing operation grew up to become one of America’s first modern microbreweries, and the producer of one of California’s most beloved beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Founder Ken Grossman started out as a young home brewer, making beer in five-gallon batches with homemade equipment. After studying chemistry in college, he opened a home brewing shop in Chico for like-minded brewing fanatics.
Two years later, he took the plunge into commercial brewing. Having limited funds, Grossman outfitted his brewery with used dairy tanks, a soft-drink bottler, and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries.
In 1980, he brewed his first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This bold, piney beer was an instant hit—so much so that Grossman had to expand the brewery twice to keep up with demand.
Not all of that space is devoted to Grossman’s flagship beer. Sierra Nevada’s lineup has grown to include many other fascinating beers, such as the Hop Hunter IPA, Kellerweis, Beer Camp IPA, and the intense “High Altitude” series.
At Sierra Nevada’s taproom and restaurant in Chico, visitors can sample 19 draft beers and nosh on seasonal, farm-to-table fare. The restaurant makes bread from spent brewers’ grain and even offers a good kids’ menu, with organic peanut butter, golden raisins, and fresh fruit on crunchy flatbread. The brewery also has a 350-seat live music venue, so be prepared to stay a while.
California brewers pioneered the hoppy IPA craze, and it shows no sign of abating. But in a hopped-up world where it sometimes seems like brewers are vying to see who can cram the most hops into a tank, North Coast Brewing Co. offers a refreshing alternative.
An early player in the craft beer movement, North Coast opened its Fort Bragg brewpub in 1988. A carpenter by trade, founder Mark Ruedrich set his sights on brewing after a visit to England, where he discovered there was more to life than watery, mass-produced American beers.
Red Seal Ale, a hoppy-for-its-time amber ale, was the first North Coast brew to get beer lovers’ attention. Scrimshaw pilsner and Old 38 stout followed, along with the Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout, now considered an iconic example of the style.
Today, North Coast makes 17 year-round and seasonal brews, plus an array of barrel-aged beers and reserves. Many of those brews are available on draft—in samplers and pints—at the brewery’s Mendocino Coast taproom, along with stone hearth pizzas and other tasty pub fare.
Barely a year into its existence, Auburn’s Moonraker Brewing Co. has emerged as one of Gold Country’s hottest brewers.
Husband-and-wife homebrewers Karen and Dan Powell opened the brewery in early 2016 and quickly attracted a following with their Northeast-style IPAs. Less bitter than West Coast IPAs, these brews are distinguished by their hazy appearance and fruity character.
Moonraker is best known for its Yojo, a “get-it-while-you-can” IPA that sells out quickly after release. It’s no wonder: The brewery won three high-profile awards earlier this year from RateBeer, including “Best New Beer” for Yojo, “Best New Brewery” in California, and ninth-best new brewery worldwide.
Moonraker’s tasting room and brewery at the Auburn Air Park features indoor and outdoor seating, food trucks, and a welcoming, dog- and kid-friendly atmosphere that draws big crowds. It offers more than a dozen beers on draft, including flights, so there’s plenty to keep a beer-lover busy. As a bonus, Moonraker is a short walk from another great brewery, Knee Deep, known for its West Coast-style IPAs.
Co-founder and head brewer Chris Miller got his start at Pacific Rim Brewing in Seattle, where he quickly worked his way up from washing kegs to brewing. After making his mark as head brewer for Snipes Mountain Brewing Company in Washington’s Yakima Valley, he moved to California with his wife, Lori, to open Berryessa Brewing.
The brewery opened in 2011, and since then, Miller’s beers have earned a place among California’s best. While some brewers like to emphasize bitterness and hops in their IPAs, Miller strives for balance and nuance in all his brews, from the Mini Separation Anxiety IPA to the award-winning Whippersnapper English-style mild.
Surrounded by orchards and mountains, Berryessa’s family-friendly taproom offers tastes, flights, and pints in a lovely rural setting. On weekends, beer lovers from all over fill the shaded patio to enjoy fresh beer, live music, and beer-friendly food-truck fare.
Hopheads the world over revere Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder double IPA, and thousands line up around the block each February for a chance to taste the limited edition Pliny the Younger triple IPA. Before there was Pliny, however, there was Blind Pig.
Vinnie Cilurzo brewed America’s first double IPA, appropriately named Inaugural Ale, at Temecula’s Blind Pig Brewing in 1994. A few years later he moved to Northern California with his wife, Natalie, and began brewing at Russian River Brewing Co., the brewery owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars. When Korbel decided to get out of the beer business in 2002, the Cilurzos bought Russian River and in 2004 opened their Santa Rosa brewpub.
Pliny the Elder still accounts for most of the brewery’s sales, but beers such as Temptation, a wine-barrel-aged sour, and the Brett-fermented Sanctification have loyal followers of their own.
Russian River’s downtown brewpub seats fewer than 200 people, so scoring a table or a seat at the bar can be challenging. But the place more than compensates for the lack of elbow room with friendly patrons and delicious beer. (In 2018, the Cilurzos will open a larger brewery and brewpub in nearby Windsor.)
Anchor Brewing’s extended history dates back to 1871, when German brewer Gottlieb Brekle purchased an old saloon near Russian Hill and transformed it into the Golden City Brewery. In 1896, he sold it to another German brewer, Ernst F. Baruth, who renamed it Anchor Brewing and introduced the San Francisco brewery’s iconic “steam beer.”
Anchor enjoyed years of success but also significant setbacks. Fires following the 1906 earthquake engulfed the brewery. Later that year, both of its owners died unexpectedly. Prohibition shut Anchor’s doors in 1920, and when it finally reopened in 1933, it was again consumed by fire.
In 1965, when Anchor was on the verge of bankruptcy, Fritz Maytag rescued the struggling brewery and sparked America’s modern craft brewing revolution.
Despite the proliferation of head-turning new beer styles and breweries, Anchor continues to hold its own in the world of craft. Its original steam beer is widely considered one of California’s great brews, and newer beers such as the Go West! IPA and Anchor Saison are attracting a new fan base.
The Anchor brewery in Potrero Hill offers daily guided tours of its three-level brick facility, ending with a tasting session in the taproom. There, visitors sample several Anchor beers on draft, from the historic to the experimental.
Those who’d rather get straight to imbibing can visit the Anchor Beer Garden near AT&T Park.
Adam Firestone grew up in the vineyards and cellar of his family’s namesake winery in the Central Coast, yet he developed a thirst for brewing at an early age. He carried out his brewing experiments using converted winemaking equipment—and the results weren’t always great.
Undeterred, Firestone continued fiddling with beer recipes and trying to convince others to buy into his dream of opening a brewery. He finally found a willing partner in David Walker, his brother-in-law, and together they conspired to create a brewery that would combine Old World craft with California innovation. In 1996, they opened Firestone Walker in Paso Robles.
The duo’s first release, a cask-fermented English-style ale called DBA (Double Barrel Ale), has become a California classic.
Along with the Paso brewery, Firestone Walker has outlets in Buellton and Venice, each with its own focus. The main location produces the flagship beers and vintage barrel-aged brews, and offers brewery tours (kids as young as 12 are welcome to come along).
The Barrelworks facility in Buellton focuses on eccentric wild ales. The Propagator brewhouse in Venice specializes in experimental beers and limited local offerings. Beer tastings are offered at all three locations, and each has its own restaurant, all of which are family-friendly: Menu items include big burgers, house-made pretzels, fish-and-chips, and pizza.
Don’t be fooled by the name: Beer never plays second fiddle at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing.
Beachwood burst onto L.A.’s brewing scene in 2011 and the accolades have been piling up ever since. In 2014, Beachwood was named “Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year” at the Great American Beer Festival, and in 2016, it earned the title of “Champion Brewer” among large brewpubs at the World Beer Cup.
The brewery produces a diverse range of mouthwatering beers, from Amalgamator, a West Coast-style IPA, to the Foam Top blonde ale and the Mocha Machine, an imperial chocolate coffee porter.
Due to demand for its growing roster of beers, Beachwood expanded from its original Long Beach location to include Beachwood Blendery in Long Beach, dedicated to funky Belgian Lambics; a brewery and taproom in Orange County's Huntington Beach; and a Seal Beach restaurant and bar.
The Long Beach brewpub has 22 rotating taps, along with one cask-conditioned option. Offerings change on a daily basis, so there’s always an exciting new brew to sample. (It also means that the beer you loved yesterday may not be there tomorrow.)
Both the Long Beach and Seal Beach brewpubs serve food—namely, succulent slow-cooked meats that match beautifully with Beachwood’s full-flavored brews.
Just steps from the Oceanside Pier, Breakwater Brewing Co. produces inventive, top-notch beers in a laid-back, beachside location. The brewery was founded in 2008 by Lars Gilman and Shannon Sager, who met through a mutual friend. Together they carried out their vision of bringing a food-friendly brewery to downtown Oceanside.
Outfitted with used equipment salvaged from a New Orleans brewery after Hurricane Katrina, Breakwater takes a “something-for-everyone” approach to brewing. The brewpub offers 12 to 18 beers on draft every day, many of them made with unexpected and hyper-local ingredients.
The Pink Something Something is a sour beer made with Rasbiscus Mead and beet root, and aged in Chardonnay barrels. Local honey goes into the Beach Honey cream ale. Breakwater’s Kali Kush, an American pale ale, is infused with wild-crafted coastal sagebrush. While some of these combinations may sound outrageous, the resulting beers are truly delicious. (For those who like more traditional brews, Breakwater’s Rye Dawn rye ale won a gold medal in the prestigious 2016 World Beer Cup.)
The brewpub atmosphere is friendly and laid-back, with pinball machines and video games to keep the kids—and adults—happy. There’s also a full menu of pub fare, pizzas, and paninis.
With more than 130 breweries within its borders, San Diego County has become a hub of craft brewing. Yet one of its oldest craft breweries remains one of its brightest stars, with die-hard fans the world over.
Stone Brewing was founded in 1996 by Greg Koch and Steve Wagner, two music industry guys who discovered they shared a mutual obsession with craft brewing. The duo’s bold, hop-centric Stone IPA immediately struck a chord with beer lovers, and the brewery has been expanding ever since.
After outgrowing its original San Marcos space, Stone moved to a 57,000-square-foot facility in Escondido. Over the years, the brewery has racked up too many awards and accolades to name, landing the top spot on BeerAdvocate’s list of “All-Time Top Brewers.”
Stone’s Escondido brewing complex is also home to Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, named by RateBeer Best in 2017 as “The Best Place for Beer in the United States." With its lush organic gardens, waterfalls, and cozy Adirondack chairs, the expansive outdoor patio is a great place to kick back and sample as many as a dozen Stone brews. Bring the kids, even, who can dabble their fingers in sparkling fountains and join you for a game of bocce on a pair of courts. After dark, an outdoor movie screen adds free entertainment for all, while fire pits warm the scene.